It is one thing to encourage employees to interact more flexibly by giving them a collection of collaboration tools; it is another challenge altogether to provide a set of tools that talk to each other seamlessly.
Much of that stems from the piecemeal growth of collaboration facilities. As new technologies appear – corporate instant messaging and voice-over-IP are two recent examples – organisations want those capabilities folded into existing suites. For the more mature vendors – especially those offering collaboration enviro-nments as a service over the Internet – that inte-gration has been a top priority. But in many cases, there are plenty of missing pieces in vendors' collaboration toolkits and plenty of disjoined aspects to the collaboration experience.
"At the moment, collaboration tools are largely a bag of things you can do, rather than being a genuinely integrated toolset," says Chris Harris-Jones, an analyst at IT market watcher Ovum. However, he predicts that fully integrated toolsets are starting to take shape and should be in place within the next few years.
The situation is mirrored within many user organisations. Specific collaboration technologies have been adopted by departments or even individual teams and IT organisations are now trying to bring some coordination to that – for cost reasons as well as to ensure such ad hoc collaboration does not conflict with regulatory demands. Compliance issues are particularly pronounced at some financial services companies, where instant messaging has quickly grown in popularity among traders and brokers.
The current situation also means that when selecting a portfolio of collaborative software, organisations often augment their suite of choice with specific best-of-breed tools. In a sector where interoperability standards are only just getting off the ground that often requires an extensive integration effort – and one that has to be revisited every time a point product is added or the suite is upgraded.
Increasingly, though, the act of collaboration is in itself not isolated from other activities. Many organisations want to integrate collaboration capabilities into business processes as part of a move away from an application-centric view of IT.
In this context, "the growing use of service-oriented architecture (SOA) is very valuable," says Harris-Jones. "A lot of collaboration tools are already modular and have some web services access points" allowing their use to be just a step in a wider process.
George Parapadakis, solutions architect at content manage-ment vendor FileNet, sees that real-time collab-oration will be part of workflow: "We don't see collaboration as something separate, it is part and parcel of the overall service."
And that heralds a move to collaboration functionality within applications: "By embedding collaboration tools within existing web-based browsers, no software needs loading onto desktop PCs," says Nigel Jones, business development manager at communications provider Alcatel. "On top of this, the user does not need to learn any new applications, as the communications features are an applet within their main business application window," he adds.
The upshot will be more fluid collaboration. "If, say, instant messaging is the initial thread of a real-time collaboration session then the users need the ability to progress from an IM session to full multi-party audio conferencing, with comprehensive document or application sharing – perhaps even video in future cases," he says Harris-Jones. And that is never going to be realised without a seamlessly integrated collaboration environment.